The Cheff Therapeutic Riding Center in Augusta, Michigan has been in existence for more than 40 years. In that time the center has helped numerous children and adults who have physical, mental, and cognitive disabilities. The Cheff Center has also served as a teaching facility, educating hundreds of therapeutic riding instructors who work in similar facilities all over the world.
The Cheff Center was originally founded by a grant from the Cheff Foundation in Holland, Michigan. The Cheff Foundation was incorporated in 1960 as a way to channel the generous financial gifts of Mr. and Mrs. P.T. Cheff. Mr. Cheff, the former president of the Holland Furnace Company, and Mrs. Cheff were both avid horse lovers. The Cheff Foundation’s goal was to help children, and in 1966 when the board of trustees began searching for a program to sponsor they looked for something involving horses and children. The board eventually settled on a riding program for the handicapped. Construction on the center began in 1969, and the Cheff Center was opened to the public in January 1970 with classes beginning February 2. The $175,000 facility sits on 300 acres of land in Augusta and included a classroom and viewing lounge, offices, storage space, rest rooms, a feed room, tack room, and 10 x 12 foot stalls for 40 horses and ponies. The center also included a 200 x 86 foot heated indoor arena. The Cheff Center was the first facility of its kind in the United States, and in 1971 it became the first North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) approved facility and instructor school.
The main purpose of the Cheff Center is to provide therapy and rehabilitation for handicapped children and adults. Upon completion of the facility, special buses were purchased for transporting students to the center and a physical therapist and nurse were hired. In addition to serving the needs of the handicapped, the center also welcomed other horse clubs and 4-H clubs in the area to use the facilities when needed.
The Cheff Center is a non-profit organization that does not receive any state or federal aid. The center receives its funding from money held in trust by the Cheff Foundation, fundraising it does throughout the year, and through donations from the public. Along with financial donations, the center also relies heavily on the donations of their therapy horses. These horses are the most important part of the program and must be extremely calm and well-mannered in order to handle the students who ride them. Philanthropic individuals and organizations have allowed the Cheff Center to offer its rehabilitation and therapy services at no cost to patrons.
Early on, the Cheff Center held several benefit horse shows as a way to raise money for their programs. The center then began what has become one of their most popular fundraisers, the annual ride-a-thon. The ride-a-thon was started in the fall of 1977 with 30 local riders collecting pledges and then participating in a 30 mile trail ride. The Cheff Center raised over $2,000 that first year and the fundraiser has continued to be popular with local riders over the years. In addition to the fundraising, the center has received several grants. In 1983 the center received a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan. The center used this grant to broaden their teaching program. They offered 20 full fellowships and 10 partial fellowships to Horseback Riding for the Handicapped volunteers to attend four-week training sessions at the center. The fellowships covered food, board, and the cost of the program. By 1986 the center received two more grants from the Kellogg Foundation, each going towards various programs at the center.
Over the years the Cheff Center has had several different directors, each bringing a different outlook to the facility. The center’s first executive director was Lida McCowan, an American Horse Show Association judge who also served as the center’s first chief instructor. When McCowan retired in 1991 her daughter, Bliss Brown, took over as director. Brown was the Cheff Center’s program director at the time, and took on both jobs until 1993 when Jack Holtman stepped into the role of executive director. Holtman had a history of working with nonprofit organizations and was an ideal choice for the Cheff Center. He immediately began looking toward the future for the center and it was under his direction that the board began planning for a future hippotherapy program. Hippotherapy, a type of therapeutic riding for those with specific movement dysfunctions, stimulates the nervous and circulatory systems and strengthens riders’ muscles. While planning for the hippotherapy program began under Holtman, it was fully established by his successor, Kris Kepler. Kepler took over as director in December 1996 and began focusing on several new programs for the facility. One of the many programs she focused on was the new hippotherapy program. With a grant from the Kellogg Foundation the Cheff Center was able to begin a clinical research trial of the new therapy in order to determine its beneficial effects on long term patients. Kepler’s goals also included hiring speech and occupational therapists as well as a full time physical therapist to make the Cheff Center an all-inclusive treatment center.
At 5 pm on December 24, 2000 tragedy struck the Cheff Center when the roof of the main building collapsed. The collapse was devastating. Although no one was injured because there were no classes due to the holiday, two of the center’s therapy horses were killed, and the damage was extensive. It was estimated that over half a million dollars would be needed for repairs. While the cause of the collapse was never discovered, it was thought that snow buildup on the roof was the most likely reason. The Cheff Center’s horses were temporarily housed at the Battle Creek Hunt Club, the center’s neighbor, and several classes were also moved to the indoor arena of the Hunt Club. Construction began on a new 25,000 square foot steel building and new indoor riding arena in December 2001. The Cheff Center also began a campaign to pay for the new structure at that time. The new building had space for offices, classrooms, meeting, and therapy rooms. In September 2002 the Cheff Center held an open house to showcase their new $2,500,000 facility. At the open house the center’s students demonstrated their newly developed riding skills and visitors were able to tour the new facility.
Since its inception, the Cheff Therapeutic Riding Center has provided treatment and therapy for thousands of individuals as well as education for hundreds of therapeutic riding instructors. While the center has faced adversity in the past, with the constant support from the community the Cheff Center will continue to help people for many years to come